Students in Associate Professor of Theatre Heather May’s “Devising for Performance” class interacted with New-York-City-based actor Rob Neill when he visited their class in the fall. Neill, a member of Actors’ Equity Association/Screen Actors Guild and founding member of the New York Neo-Futurist group, attended two class sessions and assisted May in staging a performance by Mosaic NY for the Hobart Alumni and William Smith Alumnae Associations.
“Rob Neill and I met when we were both students at Grinnell [College],” says May. “When I was researching which devising companies are considered the most influential for my students to study in Advanced Acting Styles: Devising for Performance, the Neo-Futurists were among the top of that list.” Devised theatre refers to a style of performance that is created and produced collectively by a theatre company itself, rather than by a playwright and director.
During his time in May’s class, “[Neill] introduced us to a variety of improv games and exercises meant to stimulate creativity as part of the early writing process,” she says. “Those games focused on the way that randomly juxtaposed movement and dialogue can create meaning, as well as on being present in the literal moment.”
Through the lessons, Thomas Perry ’19 discovered “Neo-Futurism has a bold way of creating immediacy in its art through the honesty of staging. A pen is always a pen on stage, and Neo-Futurism does nothing to attempt to deceive the viewer into thinking that what they are watching is anything other than actors in a room.” Perry also had an opportunity to create an interactive performance centered on the first time he ran five miles. “I learned that theatre doesn’t need much to be engaging, especially when you depict yourself honestly,” he says.
English major Bailey DiSanto ’21 enjoyed the use of the “Whiskey Mixer” activity that required students standing in a circle to enunciate a series of tongue twisters without laughing, taking a lap around the circle if they weren’t able to.
“This exercise was fun, but also possessed certain lessons that correlated extremely well with Professor May’s own teachings,” says DiSanto. “She encourages us to embrace our failures, for they are inevitable in theatre and improv. In Whisky Mixer, failure was inevitable. However, the consequence of failure was to take a break and come back when you’re ready. It acknowledged that everyone makes mistakes.”
May says that the experience of practicing and performing with working actors brings an added dimension to the students’ class experience that expands their understanding of what is possible in a theatrical experience. “The more perspectives we can offer our students, the more they are introduced to the very wide field of theatre,” she says. “These all enrich the work we can do in our classrooms and onstage.”
DiSanto agrees. “It is sometimes hard for students to recognize how the classroom lessons relate to the world outside of our college campus,” she says. “However throughout Rob’s visit I noticed the similarities of theory and practice within his work and our classroom content. I also noticed the differences, which encouraged me to think critically about what ideals and practices I want to adopt in my own work as an actor and ensemble member.”